Questions over French journalists' deaths in Mali

Slain journalists Ghislaine Dupont, left, and Claude Verlon. Photo / AP
Slain journalists Ghislaine Dupont, left, and Claude Verlon. Photo / AP

Two veteran French journalists kidnapped and killed in northern Mali were shot to death, French authorities said, as questions emerged about how the gunmen managed to carry out the attack near a town where both French troops and UN forces are based.

The slayings of Ghislaine Dupont, 51, and Claude Verlon, 58, shocked France and underscored how insecure parts of northern Mali remain months after a French-led military intervention against al-Qaida and other extremists.

The new details, shared by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius after a meeting of key ministers with French President Francois Hollande, failed to clarify who was behind the killings and why the pair was targeted.

He said the two were shot multiple times and their bodies found near the vehicle that whisked them away. Earlier, four Malian officials, including the head of the armed forces in Kidal said the journalists' throats had been slit.

The Radio France Internationale journalists were kidnapped Saturday after interviewing a Tuareg rebel leader in Kidal. The northern town is under de facto rebel control despite the presence of French and UN troops.

French troops, alerted to the kidnappings, set up checkpoints, sent out patrols and called in helicopters to search for the journalists, French military spokesman Col. Gilles Jaron said.

But a patrol arrived too late, finding the abandoned vehicle east of the town and the bodies nearby. The French troops, some 200 of whom are based at the Kidal airport, had earlier found no trace of the fleeing vehicle.

Fabius said the bodies were found some 12 kilometres outside Kidal and "several meters" from the vehicle. RFI chief Marie-Christine Saragosse said they were found 80 metres from the kidnappers' vehicle.

The killings were "odious, abject and revolting," Fabius said. He said one journalist had been hit with three bullets, the other two but that the car, whose doors were locked, showed no impact from bullets.

Cecile Megie, RFI's executive editor, said the two journalists had been seized by a group that spirited them away in a beige pickup truck.

"The site showed no trace of fighting, gunfire. It was an execution," Megie said.

Despite January's French-led intervention and a presidential election since, much of Mali, especially the vast north, remains in turmoil.

Suspicion as to who was behind the killings grew as bits of information trickled out.

Both Tuareg separatists of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, known as the NMLA, and al-Qaida-linked fighters operate in the area.

The NMLA rebels launched their latest rebellion in 2012. Those rebels were later chased out by al-Qaida's fighters in the region but have returned to prominence in Kidal in recent months.

Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has kidnapped Westerners, but it tends not to kill them but rather to hold them for ransom as a means of bankrolling its operations.

The killings came four days after France rejoiced at the liberation of four other citizens, who had been kidnapped in neighbouring Niger three years ago and were found in northwest Mali.

"The killers are those we are fighting, that is, the terrorist groups who refuse democracy and refuse elections," Fabius said.

Mali is to hold a parliamentary vote later this month. The journalists had traveled to Kidal to report for a special program on Mali ahead of the voting.

Saragosse, who heads France 24 TV along with RFI, was traveling to Bamako, the capital of Mali, on Sunday to accompany the return of the bodies.

She said the slain journalists had been accompanied from Bamako to Kidal, some 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) north, by UN troops who have been present since the end of the French intervention.

The pair both long-time RFI employees familiar with challenging terrain were taken to the town hall, "the safest place," said Saragosse, who also met with Hollande Sunday.

It was not immediately clear whether the UN troops were in the vicinity at the time of the kidnapping.

The French military spokesman confirmed reports that French forces in Mali had refused to take the journalists to Kidal for security and "operational reasons."

A UN spokesman said its troops had not noticed the vehicle used in the kidnapping in any of the seven checkpoints in and around the city manned by them.

"These seven checkpoints are at major transit locations and the vehicle of the kidnappers was not noticed at any of these checkpoints," said Olivier Salgado, spokesman for the UN mission in Mali.

He added: "You need to put this in the context of the desert. This is a place with dunes. They must have used a non-official road or path."

Lt. Col. Oumar Sy, a Malian officer stationed in Kidal and involved in the investigation, said that all signs point to the NMLA.

"We are in a town that is in the de facto hands of the NMLA," Sy said. "We learn these poor people are taken in front of the house of an NMLA leader. No one lifts a finger to help them. What conclusion would you come to?"

NMLA representatives in Kidal could not be reached for comment by The Associated Press on Sunday.

Dupont, a senior correspondent, and Verlon, a production technician, had worked at RFI since the 1980s.

Dupont spent the bulk of her career in Africa. "She was a sniffer dog, who was never content with the information she had. She always wanted to dig and dig some more," her colleague Nicolas Champeaux recalled.

Verlon had worked in Iraq and Afghanistan and was passionate about Africa, where he had been on numerous assignments, according to RFI.

- AP

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